Film Score Monthly
Screen Archives Entertainment 250 Golden and Silver Age Classics on CD from 1996-2013! Exclusive distribution by SCREEN ARCHIVES ENTERTAINMENT.
Sky Fighter Wild Bunch, The King Kong: The Deluxe Edition (2CD) Body Heat Friends of Eddie Coyle/Three Days of the Condor, The It's Alive Ben-Hur Nightwatch/Killer by Night Gremlins
Forgot Login?
Search Archives
Film Score Friday
Latest Edition
Previous Edition
Archive Edition
The Aisle Seat
Latest Edition
Previous Edition
Archive Edition
View Mode
Regular | Headlines
All times are PT (Pacific Time), U.S.A.
Site Map
Visits since
February 5, 2001:
© 2024 Film Score Monthly.
All Rights Reserved.
Return to Articles

Back in the 1960s, Italian director Quilci Folco created one of the early travelogues of India in a documentary of the same name. The score, by Francesco de Masi, is a relatively innocent affair as global music goes with orchestrations that hint at the musical styles of India. Famed Italian whister, Alessandro Alessandroni, even plays a sitar in this score. The Beatles later would introduce a much wider audience to the sounds of India at a time when the field of ethnomusicology and awareness of global musics outside Western culture was still quite rare. If you are a child of the 1970s, you will surely recall the rise in America of the great sitarist Ravi Shankar and the many crossover albums that brought the sound of ragas to the door of Western classical music.

With the success of Slumdog Millionaire, and the first ever awarding of two Oscars to an Indian film composer, A.R. Rahman, we might very well see a great many more influences of this diverse country and region of the world. As is the case for many, our own arrogance can often overtake our personal interest in the music of another culture. India has as long a history of film music as many European cultures whose films are equally hard to catch here in the states. Bollywood musicals have made a smattering of appearances on CD through more recent superb collections on Silva. Here we are able to discover the unique vocal stylings of famous artists who sing against the same popular music styles prevalent in the West. 
The most difficult thing for Western ears is the way Indian music sounds at first. Without getting terribly technical, Indian music, especially the more ancient classical tradition is based on a “raga” which is better understood as a particular color or mood. Ragas are melodies that can have five or more notes and are the basis for what Western ears will hear as a continuous variation. Traditionally, ragas are associated with particular moods or times of the day. Thus, being brought up within this musical tradition allows for a more powerful expression to be understood when these melodies appear in songs or as underscore components in a film.
While “Bollywood” films tend to claim a more universal appeal, India’s cinema has unique regional flavors which are as equally prolific. Many of the films tend to last an average of an hour more than the typical American film. Composers are generally musical directors whose instrumental underscore often is minimal with a predominance of songs. One of the most prolific of these composers is maestro Illayaraja.
Ilaiyaraaja has composed over 900 film scores (take that Morricone!) and a host of crossover albums. Many of the films he writes for though tend to be in more regional languages which tends to limit their marketability. Limit seems an odd word to choose given the 200 million or so people for whom Ilaiyaraaja is a more familiar name. Over the years, the composer has explored combining Western and Indian musics to create an intriguing blend of sounds and is credited with writing the first Asian symphony. One of his other superb accomplishments is an oratorio, Thiruvasagam,which is a massive work for chorus and orchestra. Born in the Tamil region of Southern India in 1943, Ilaiyaraaja began his career in the 1970s in the Tamil film industry sometimes referred to as Kollywood.   With over 4500 songs to his credit as well, he is undoubtedly one of India’s best kept secrets.
Before sharing much about the music, it must be pointed out that for this reviewer, getting a handle on the extensive career and music of this composer is a bit overwhelming. Imagine summing up the career of say John Williams or Ennio Morricone with three film scores and a couple of instrumental classical albums. To say we are scratching the surface would be a gross understatement as the best one can hope to do here is to prick the skin.
For those however looking to hear how Ilaiyaraajacombines Western styles with Indian ones there are two albums which can be recommended. One of the things the composer is noted for is his exploration of Western classical traditions melding them into an Indian musical context and sensibility. In two crossover discs, imported on Oriental Records ( you can hear two distinct approaches. In How to Name It?, the composer focuses primarily on exploring the Italian Baroque period. With a prominent solo violin often playing a raga-inspired melodic idea, strings churn away underneath in a rather intriguing fusion of two ancient traditions (though the one is far more ancient than the other!). There are some modish moments as well here recalling the odd funky music of 1960s pop sounds as well, but the bulk of the album maintains this Baroque sensibility. One gets a sense of the inventiveness of Ilaiyaraaja in this disc due to the semi-improvisational feel that is created by the melodic direction of the music—perhaps a true melding of East and West. A second release from the same label, Nothing But Wind, shifts into the next Western musical soundworld of the later 18th century with a Mozartian orchestra supporting a rather beautiful flute line, played by Hariprasad Chaurasia (sort of the Indian answer to Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway). The five tracks of this latter release might be an easier entry into this unique blending of musics for most Western listeners.
Three film scores representing different genres were available to sample all from more recent films. The first of these is for a 2005 comedy, Mumbai Express (Venus Records 1542). Over the 6 ample tracks here, we here the jazzy funky sounds of “Aila Re” to samples of underscoring with dialogue in “Pyaar Chahiye” which give way to another beautiful lyric song. As all good film music does, Illayaraja’s score simply supports narrative with appropriate melodrama cast in moving string sounds. In “Bander Ki Dug Dugi” Indian percussion give way to an almost Grusin-like 80s jazz sound with vocals. This blend of dialogue that moves into song is indicative of Indian cinema and what this disc allows is fans of the film to hear the complete context of the songs that are used in the film and how the instrumental music weaves into and out of the song material. The one instrumental track, “Monkey Chatter,” is actually an 80s-ish jazz instrumental piece that uses a variety of electronic keyboards and some acoustic instruments (or an extremely dryly recorded live orchestra) for a suberb jazzy track. Most listeners would be hard pressed to know that this track was composed by an Indian composer demonstrating Illayaraja’s complete mastery of the Western forms explored here (this can be heard equally in the more classical crossover releases available for review as well). The melodic content of the score has an almost spiritual quality at times that makes it quite an engaging listen.  The disc runs to 45 minutes but note that 16 minutes of that are repeated as bookends to the central material.
Cheeni Kum (2007) is a romantic comedy and features vocalist Shreya Ghosal who sings most of the tracks here (Eros Music 10, The title song has a disco back beat with a very catchy melodic idea. Catchy and engaging melodies are part and parcel for illayaraja’s music which truly do grab the ear in such a way that you surprisingly find yourself humming along with them almost upon first hearing. Harder rock sounds appear cast against a semi-improvisational jazz approach throughout this score as well and dialogue can appear at random moments as part of the texture. You can get a sense for the expert combination of raga and Western melodic sensibility in the pop ballad “Jaane Do Na” as the melody is outlined in piano before moving into a more pop style. The primary melodic idea is recast in the other songs here as well with some slight variation. Where that melody ends up is what makes for interesting listening as we hear the primary opening move off into fascinating and beautiful realizations. The orchestral backdrop, with occasional near techno sounds, and interesting electronic keyboard elaborations still gives some of the music an 1980s feel, though the general thrust of the music stands as an easily contemporary as any other new film song and as engaging as those now made famous in Slumdog Millionaire. There are two instrumental tracks to round off the album. The first is a more traditional orchestral piece the second a electronic-laced jazzy number. The former suffers a lot of audio distortion unfortunately. At 30 minutes, this might be a harder disc to recommend. The music contained here actually comes from earlier Ilaiyaraaja songs polished up for presentation in this current film so fans are getting to hear perhaps some older favorites in a new light. The sound quality is not as good in the purely instrumental segments, but it is for the beautiful singing voice of Ghosal and melodic content that can recommend this release.
Finally, the most recent score made available for sampling is Naan Kadavul, released this past January in India (Pyramid Saimara Music 118, For this action drama, Ilaiyaraaja explores more traditional Indian melodic content and chanting in choral groupings in the opening track (the disc does not have translated titles for reference) which features traditional instrumental choices (though often cast in a more rocklike sound) and fabulous drumming accompaniments that form an almost hypnotic repetitive motion. The following track tends to continue the focus on an updated Indian music sound and lyric that has a sensuous quality as it winds in a semi-chromatic line which will later be taken on by solo instruments.   The music for Naan Kadavul features, if you will, some of Ilaiyaraaja’s most Indian-influenced sounds and musical ideas far nearer to the surface than in the previous discs available for review. Repetitive beats and quasi-chant lines are similar in some respects to African drumming and their minimalist interpretations. Melodic ideas have that ancient ethnic sound that finds distant cousins in the music of the Middle East as well. As with other music heard by the composer, one is never struck that these are derivative, or adapted musics, being exploited. They are part of a masterful technique uniting the various musical sounds at his disposal. At barely 26 minutes, this is a relatively short disc by most standards. 
It is quite clear that Ilaiyaraaja’s respect is well-warranted. His music is immediately engaging, with a popular sensibility that gives way to detailed construction upon further exploration. Working with a variety of synthetic production, live orchestra, and fabulous singers and Indian music instrumentalists lends the music a unique quality that one discovers is part of the style of this composer. Here is someone who has discovered a way to fuse musics from multiple periods both East and West to create a sound that serves each subsequent film. There is much of the composer’s music to be explored and even with the language barrier that ultimately exists, the music is immediately communicative and often entrancing.
With access via the internet, tracking down many of these scores with the above links provided, will make it easier for the curious to hear the work of one of India’s finest composers writing music that even as it suggests Western forms has a global transcendence often missing in much of the USA’s simplistic hinting at global cultural styles. 
Return to Articles Author Profile
Comments (12):Log in or register to post your own comments
Some details about where to get copies of the CDs in this article:

1. How to Name it - Oriental Records -

2.Nothing But Wind - Oriental Records -
3. Tiruvasakam - Classical Crossover - Amazon stores, iTUNES

4.Cheeni Kum - Amazon stores,
5.Mumbai Xpress -
6.Nan Kadavul - Ayngaran International (,

Really did enjoy reading this.

I've been meaning to check out the CD's at the India store where I buy incense and Soya Vada.

Thanks for the article, Steven. If you like the above said tracks of Ilayaraaja, you shouldn't miss his background score of 'Hey Raam' (released in 2000), as an Indian movie fan, I would say the best background score for any Indian film so far.

Thank you Steve! growing up listening to Ilaiyaraaja's music is the Indian equivalent of someone in the West growing up listening to the Beatles! the difference being the Beatles simply dont possess the wide repertoire/ versatility of this one-man industry that goes by the name Ilaiyaraaja!! there are two webpages of the composer that I came across - which does not seem to updated and maintained and one on myspace music

Hi ,

Please hear some of the best compositions of Ilayaraja at


That was a wonderful article Steve!

It is rather unfortunate that such a great composer-with firm conviction I can say one of the world's best composers-has not been recognised even in India leave alone the West!

Not many in the Northern part of India even know his existence.While it is a fact that the loss is theirs and definitely not ILayaraaja's, people like me who grew up with his music feel rather sad about this.

Though you have covered some facts in detail, there are a lot of dimensions not known to a majority of people outside the Southern part of India.

ILaiyaraaja is a spontaneous composer.The moment the Director explains the situation in a film, he takes his harmonium and composes the tune.

Next is the composing of the prelude and the interludes and here is where the Master excels.
He writes the notes on the sheet(i think one of the few to follow this at least in India).The notations follow the western pattern.As he writes the notes, he decides on the instruments to be used.

Copies of the sheet are handed over to the members of the troupe and ...the song is ready for recording.

But this is not the end of the story.
His ingenuity and mastery do not stop here.

He adds life to the movie with his Background Music(Original Score in Western Parlance and Re-Recording in Indian lingo!).

Reel by reel he watches the Film and writes the score then and there with a perfect sense of timing.He conceives a theme music-leit motif- for the film and uses this music in different tempos depending on the situation making us wonder if it is the same musical piece!

In fact,some of the popular Directors would leave 'gaps' in their films for the Maestro to fill-up.
His forthcoming film-Nandalala- has a 45 minute climax without any dialogue.Does one need any dialogue at all when there is great music?

One of his other specialities is his choice and use of instruments.He was the first one in India to give importance to Bass Guitar.His Basswork needs a very deep analysis.He introduced many instruments-hitherto not known in India- in his compositions.

You have mentioned just some of his songs.There are many gems of his-early works in particular-which are unknown to a majority of people now(includes those who live in South India!).

Please do listen to such compositions that are mind-boggling.

I would only be too willing to share such gems with a cross section of people across the globe.

Thanks again for the beautiful article!

hi steve, Thanks for the wonderful post, Maestro Ilayaraaja is a born genius and is considered GOd Of Music for millions of his fans, his music compositions are like meditation, yoga. there is something which i would like to add , he is the only music director who doesnt use a timer when composing the background score for a movie, meaning when the original score of the movie is done and a scene goes on the screen, he just watches it, writes the notes and bingo when the crew plays the notes it ends exactly when the scene ends, moreover he is again one of those unique composers who can identify a single vioilinist making a minor change in the notes from a group of 100 plus, again not just identifying the mistake, he can pick that particular vioilinist by name and the row he is playing from the group.isnt this amazing, i have seen this with my own eyes during one of his recordings, like you have mentioned his combination of classical and indian folk in particular mixed with indian classical is a subject by itself, not just one or two songs here and there 4500 compositions are a subject which needs superior knowledge of music to analyse the greatness of this composer, long live maestro ilayaraaja, thanks, dinesh

Hi Mr.Steven A Kennedy,

Kudos for the Well written article on 'Raaja' (We fans prefer calling him like that which means the 'King'). He has collaborated with few composers in the west and their feedback on his music were similar to your thoughts.

Here is what Stephen Schwartz said about him at the time of recording for 'Thiruvaasagam'
Last night, at Sony Studios in New York City, I had the pleasure of hearing the almost-finished mix of Ilayaraaja's amazing work. It is unlike anything I've ever heard before, a stunning blend of Indian and Western music and instruments. I asked Mr. Raaja if this was something different for him too, and he said he had never done anything like this piece before. I don't know if anyone has. So I believe those of you looking forward to this are in for a great treat. The section to which I contributed English words is about twenty minutes long and dovetails back and forth between Mr. Raaja singing in Tamil and an American singer singing in English, plus there is a large and beautifully produced chorus. Mr. Raaja's orchestrations are superb, and the recording engineer, Richard King, has done a spectacular job sonically. I felt so very proud to be a small part of this project.

Mr. Raaja is a pleasure to work with, in answer to your question. He is a quiet and gentle personality, always smiling and encouraging, which can make one forget what a musical genius he is. He was extremely clear with me about what he wanted me to do in translating/paraphrasing the Tamil text, what portions of Manikka-Vacagar's poem he wished me to emphasize, and what the deeper meanings were. When he wanted revisions, he was again very clear and helpful as to what adjustments he felt needed to be made to accomplish his vision. The people Mr. Raaja surrounds himself with, at least those it was my pleasure to meet, are also unfailingly positive personalities. The entire project for me has been an enjoyable and fascinating experience from beginning to end, and I feel extremely lucky to have been asked by Mr. Raaja to participate.

I hope this answers some of your questions, and I believe I can promise you with confidence you are in for a major treat when you hear Thiruvasakam in Symphony.

Sincerely, Stephen Schwartz

Here is what the italain composer massimo simmoni wrote about the album 'Wings'

Wings is a fascinating blend of Eastern and Western styles which, while seemingly adhering to a cirriculum of modern classical ethics, transgresses the idom by staying true to the mystical aspects of Eastern music. The implementation of Indian instruments in a modern context makes for a rich pallete of tone colors, creating a wide range of expressive possibilities. This is an excellent combination of stylings - one which will both please those already familiar with the tonalities and sublime aspects of Eastern music, and pleasantly surprise the less initiated.

I hope in the coming days more & more people are initiated into the music of this Genius.

Thanks Steve for that wonderful article about our Raja ( The King ). As his name says, he is truly the king of music. As you have mentioned, there are over 4000 songs composed by this maestro and out of which at least 2000 songs are great and out of which at least 1000 songs are exceptional. Can you imagine any other composer doing this with so much variety?. And the BGMs that he compose for films are known as the best in India. It is a sad thing that he is not very well known outside South India. I hope in the coming days more people outside South India get to enjoy his music and I am sure they'll become a devotee. BTW, the albums that you chose are only samples and there are many greater albums from this unique composer. Once again thanks for your post.

Hi ,

Please hear some of the best compositions of Ilayaraja at


This is the working link :)


View more comments   |   view last
Film Score Monthly Online
Handling the Underscore
The Watchers Project
Stafford Rising
The Great Mac Quayle
Hit Graham
David Fleming: Idea Man
The Atlas Project, Part 2
Coloring Outside the Lines
Enis Warning
Still Graves the Deep
Mixmaster Sands
Ear of the Month Contest: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Today in Film Score History:
July 18
Abel Korzeniowski born (1972)
Barry Gray born (1908)
David Shire records his score for the Amazing Stories episode "Hell Toupee" (1985)
James William Guercio born (1945)
Nathan Van Cleave begins recording his score for The Lonely Man (1956)
Richard Markowitz records his score for The Wild Wild West episode “The Night of the Golden Cobra” (1966)
FSMO Featured Video
Video Archive • Audio Archive
© 2024 Film Score Monthly. All Rights Reserved.
Website maintained and powered by Veraprise and Matrimont.